Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790
“Born into modest conditions and largely self-taught, Benjamin Franklin became, even in his
lifetime, the person whose life came to represent for many in the British American colonies and the
new United States the range of possibilities one could achieve if one worked hard enough, sought a
healthy manner of living, and founded actions upon principles, rather than passions” (Mulford 761).
Born in Boston, the tenth son of a family that would eventually include fifteen children
Was apprenticed to his older brother, a printer
1723: Runs away to Philadelphia
Eventually travels to England before returning to Philadelphia to set up a printing business
o Does so just as print culture in America really takes off and there is an ever-increasing
reliance on print to spread information
By age 24, he was the sole owner of a print shop and publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette
1733: Begins publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac, made up of witty advice and articles on how to be
successful through hard work and thriftiness
Marries Deborah Reade, but accounts of his children differ—he had at least one illegitimate child
(maybe more?) and two children with Reade, one of whom died at age 4
o His (illegitimate) son William goes on to become governor of New Jersey
o During the Revolution, William is a loyalist, and the rift between he and his father is never
By age 43, Franklin is successful enough to “retire” from his business life. He has already invented a
type of stove, established a fire company, a library, and helped found what would become the
University of Pennsylvania
He decides to devote the rest of his life to the study of science and to public affairs
He is convinced that the rational mind can do almost anything
Franklin is a Deist and emphasized self-reliance
Believed in the inherent innocence of people and the potential to change the world
Believed in the importance of developing and maintaining a public image
Errata vs. sins: “Franklin had no illusions about the errata of humankind, but his metaphor suggests
that we can change and alter our past in a way that the word ‘sins’ did not” (Baym 220).
Becomes an important diplomat and spend half of the last forty years of his life overseas
o The only founding father to sign the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with
France, the peace treaty ending the Revolution, and the Constitution
The Autobiography: often read as an idealized picture of American manhood, but also offers good
insights on 18th-century life, conceptions of audience, the composing process
o Written over many years—started in 1771, picked up again in 1784, 1788, and 1789
Franklin’s writings “revise Puritan ideology, reflect transatlantic economic and political life of the
eighteenth-century, and foreshadow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s image of self-reliance and self-
empowerment as a means of social reform” (Madden 807).
Baym, Nina, editor. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.
Madden, Etta. “Benjamin Franklin.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 2006. 804-807.
Mulford, Carla. Early American Writings. Ed. Carla Mulford. NY: Oxford UP, 2002.